This time, it really looks like the end. At least for the coming month, it appears that the ceasefire deal announced on Tuesday night between Israel and Hamas will hold. Negotiations will resume next month in Cairo, dealing with the tougher demands made by Hamas: from a complete opening of the Rafah border crossing to the establishment of a seaport. If by then Hamas tones down its demands, it may be possible to advance from a temporary truce to a more long-term arrangement. In the meantime, both sides seem interested at putting an end to this terrible summer.
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Tuesday's announcement of the ceasefire was accompanied by the expected cries of woe from left and right. For every Israeli asking himself if Israel didn’t go too far in the destruction and suffering it inflicted on Gaza, there are two or three others who are convinced that the Israel Defense Forces should have hit harder, teaching Hamas a lesson it won’t soon forget. The somewhat disappointed sentiment is understandable, given the economic and military disparity between the two sides. However the sense is that the war did not end in victory or failure, but rather in a somewhat doleful tie.
Israel would have preferred to end hostilities three weeks ago, once the attack tunnels were neutralized. Since then, the sense of military achievement has been eroded, with justifiably mounting anger of (mainly) the residents of communities along the Gaza border, directed at military and civilian leaders. Last week a breakthrough was attained with the assassination of some Hamas military commanders. These assassinations, along with the widespread humanitarian disaster, appear to have hastened Hamas’ agreement to a ceasefire. The Islamic Jihad, more severely hit, was ready for a similar agreement a few weeks earlier.
Hamas, trying to portray a victorious stance to the people of Gaza, orchestrated some celebrations last night. The organization will take pride in the 50 days it stood fast against the IDF and in the lethal barrage it unleashed in the last hour of the war on Tuesday, killing two kibbutz members in Nirim. The pressure to demonstrate achievements is pushing Hamas into strange places, such as a pathetic video it released a few days ago, showing its “booty” - a bus pass and a 100 shekel note taken from the wallet of a reservist soldier who was injured in the fighting. The reservist rushed to post a counter-video on YouTube, urging Hamas to donate the money for purchasing medicine for injured Palestinians.
No one in Gaza is asking what happened to the promise to release Hamas operatives who were rearrested after being set free in the Shalit swap deal, or where Mohammed Deif is, if nothing happened to him, as the organization is claiming. It stands to reason that in closed chambers – in which there is more open admission of a rout - Hamas leaders use a different tone, with complaints about their perceived rampage by the Israel Air Force, particularly in the four days following the death of Daniel Tragerman in Nahal Oz on Friday.
Hamas’ acceptance of a cease-fire under conditions which are far from their original demands is not an indication of an Israeli victory, but of erosion in the organization’s willingness to continue fighting at present. The real test will come over the long run. The Second Lebanon War was poorly conducted on both the military and civilian level, yet the northern border is almost completely quiet after eight years, with Hezbollah refraining from challenging Israel for a variety of reasons. This time, even with better management of the confrontation on both levels, it is still difficult to estimate how long a quiet period might last.
The two sides waged a war of attrition and deterrence in Gaza, not one leading to a decisive victory. Israel did not attempt to vanquish Hamas, only to weaken and restrain it. In effect, it seems Israel didn’t understand what Hamas was after and how determined it was to achieve it, willing to pay heavily. On July 7, Hamas launched a war aimed at lifting the siege of Gaza, if not at attaining its own independence. It’s doubtful whether it just slid into it, almost by chance, as still claimed by Israel’s intelligence agencies.
Israel chalked up several military achievements. Iron Dome completely blocked rocket damage in Israel’s center, while limiting it in the south; most of Hamas’ attack tunnels were destroyed; and it is doubtful whether it will be able to replenish its rocket stockpiles, due to close collaboration between Israel and Egypt – which will also make it difficult for them to reopen tunnels used from smuggling goods from Sinai. As for Israel’s demand for demilitarizing Gaza – it was unrealistic to begin with.
However, the IDF will still need to conduct serious reassessments regarding reorganizing its ground forces and their training, as well as its operational strategies for dealing with terror organizations, ahead of a possible further round of fighting. No one really foresaw this summer’s confrontation and certainly not its duration.
The most significant weak link was probably the communities along the border with Gaza, which have undergone a traumatic experience in recent weeks. Their suffering warranted a different approach by authorities, not the muddled, zigzagging treatment they received.
In the long run, maintaining quiet depends on how much Hamas’ willingness to confront the IDF has been diminished and on what outlet from the suffocating siege Israel and Egypt provide it. The situation prior to the war was intolerable for Gaza’s population. Israel must decide soon what it wants. One can mock the ambitious new plan prepared by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; but what does Israel offer beyond a determined stand and national cohesion?
It is now clear that Israel views the Palestinian Authority differently now, as well as its unity deal with Hamas. Netanyahu's government even half-heartedly recognizes the need for the partner from Ramallah, who maintained stability in the West Bank despite the rage over the killings in Gaza, and is now willing to restrain Hamas and help with reconstruction. Any future solution will also require close coordination with Egypt.
Last week, in one of his on-air statements, Netanyahu talked of a possible new diplomatic horizon after the fighting subsides. Such a move, with the backing of the United States, Europe and moderate Arab countries, makes sense. But politically speaking, the chances for such an initiative are slim. Netanyahu will now have to fight for his political life, in the face of disappointment with his performance, as recent polls show. More than from the left, Netanyahu will be under threat from the right, making diplomatic flexibility difficult.